This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Agony Booth review: Star Trek Beyond (2016)

My newest Agony Booth article looks at the latest entry in the Star Trek reboot series.
Star Trek Beyond had its premiere in July and, appropriately, was dedicated to both Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin. Like the two previous movies in the Star Trek reboot series, Beyond, which was co-written by Simon Pegg, has its moments, but lacks substance to place it in the same category of great science fiction as the classic series it’s based on.

The movie begins with Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) negotiating with aliens who, for whatever reason, are pissed off, and in an attempt at visual humor, turn out not to be as imposing as the camera initially makes them seem. These small creatures malevolently attack and cover Kirk like they’re gremlins before Scotty (Pegg) beams him back. Kirk also gets a souvenir called an Abronath for his trouble.

Kirk next explains in his captain’s log that the Enterprise is now three years into the five-year mission it began at the conclusion of Into Darkness. He adds that, with his birthday approaching (a subtle nod to Kirk’s birthday in The Wrath of Khan), he’s struggling to find meaning in his life, away from the shadow of his father.

This begs the question of what happened to Carol Marcus, who joined the crew in the previous movie. Longtime fans know that in the original timeline, she and Kirk had a son David, who was tragically taken from Kirk by Klingons (led by Doc Brown, of all people) in The Search for Spock. But the reboot gave an opportunity to show that relationship in a new light. I don’t know if Alice Eve didn’t want to reprise her role here or not, but this was definitely a missed opportunity.

The Enterprise arrives at the awesome-looking new Starbase Yorktown, where Kirk is considering accepting a promotion. While not having Carol in this movie is a shame, we do see another crew member with a family life here, and that’s Sulu (John Cho). Star Trek: Generations revealed that Sulu had a daughter, and upon arriving at Yorktown, we see her as a little girl, with both her fathers, no less.

It’s also revealed that Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) have ended their relationship, and if that wasn’t enough, Spock receives word that his older self, Ambassador Spock (Nimoy) has died.

Not long afterward, however, Kirk gets orders to take the Enterprise on a rescue mission to a nearby nebula. An alien named Kalara (Lydia Wilson) informs the crew that her ship is stranded on a planet in the nebula. Upon arriving at the planet, named Altamid, the Enterprise encounters a swarm of small ships that quickly tear the hell out of it. The leader of these aliens, Krall (Idris Elba) boards the ship with his minions looking for the Abronath, but to no avail. As the ship gets torn to pieces for the third time in as many films (again? sheesh…), Kirk orders the crew to evacuate to Altamid.

As the ship’s saucer section crashes on the planet, Krall captures crewmembers including Uhura and Sulu. But Kirk manages to rendezvous with Chekov (Yelchin) and Kalara in the damaged saucer section. She then reveals herself to be one of Krall’s soldiers, and attempts to take the Abronath. But Kirk is one step ahead of her as he and Chekov escape by activating the saucer’s boosters. The fight ends with the saucer flipping over, crushing Kalara.

Elsewhere, Spock and McCoy (Karl Urban) are reunited and attempt to locate the others, while McCoy shows his unique bedside manner by tending to Spock’s wounds. The two later have a heart-to-heart where Spock informs him of both Ambassador Spock’s passing and his breakup with Uhura. However, it’s not clear whether they broke up because of Spock’s wish to attempt to keep his Vulcan family line going, or whether he wanted to simply continue the work his older self was doing.

Scotty turns out to be on another section of the planet, and after narrowly avoiding a fall over a cliff, is rescued from Krall’s men by Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). She informs Scotty that she escaped Krall’s prison some time ago and has taken refuge in what turns out to be the USS Franklin, a Federation ship reported missing a century earlier. We also learn that she enjoys listening to rock music in her spare time (gee, I wonder if that’ll become important later). Soon, Kirk, Chekov, Spock, and McCoy join Scotty on the ship and plot their rescue of the rest of the crew.

But Krall has managed to find the Abronath, which Kirk instructed Ensign Syl (Melissa Roxburgh) to hide inside her roomy head (that’s original). As Uhura attempts to talk sense into Krall, he uses the Abronath to complete a weapon that was created on the planet centuries ago. Krall then demonstrates it on Syl before announcing his plans to use it to attack Yorktown, and then the Federation.

Kirk and the others then launch an attack on Krall in order to transport the remaining crew onto the Franklin. But this doesn’t stop Krall from launching his fleet toward Yorktown. Spock and McCoy are able to beam onto one of the small ships and learn that VHF transmissions can disrupt the wavelength the ships operate on. As it so happens, Kayla has just the kind of transmissions needed to destroy these ships (what are the odds?). Naturally, this means that rock music is the only thing standing between the Federation and total annihilation. But I suppose this is no less ridiculous than aliens attempting to conquer the Federation with a video game in the Next Generation episode “The Game”.

As the ships are destroyed, Krall crashes into the Yorktown and blends into the evacuating populace. It’s at this point we get the plot twist that had to happen. Uhura looks at the Franklin’s logs and realizes that Krall is actually the Franklin’s captain, Balthazar Edison. She and Kirk also learn that Edison was a soldier who became disillusioned with peacetime after the Federation was formed, and that he blames the Federation for abandoning him and his crew once they were stranded on Altamid.

Apparently, the crew was able to somehow change their appearance by using technology they found on Altamid.

Kirk tracks Krall into Yorktown’s ventilation system as the villain tries to activate his super weapon. But Kirk manages to send both it and Krall into space before Spock and McCoy rescue him.

The film concludes with everyone celebrating Kirk’s birthday while staying on the Yorktown for the entire time that it takes for the Enterprise-A to get built. Not surprisingly, Kirk decides not to take the promotion offered to him, and Jayla is offered a chance to join Starfleet. It’s not clear if Spock and Uhura are a couple again, but there is a nice moment where he goes through Ambassador Spock’s things and comes across a picture of the original crew (which I guess Ambassador Spock just happened to have with him when he traveled back in time in the first reboot film). This is such a nice moment that I’m willing to forgive the fact that the pic itself is a group photo from Star Trek V.

In another nice touch, we hear the famous “Space, the final frontier…” speech with each of our seven characters reciting parts of it.

Like its two predecessors, this movie definitely has some plot holes. For instance, we learn that Jayla was able to keep the Franklin hidden from Krall by somehow cloaking it. I guess nobody managed to accidentally bump into it the whole time Krall was on the planet? Also, why did Krall wait until he just happened to come across Kirk to get the piece he needed to create his super weapon? How did he lose that piece in the first place?

I also think it goes without saying that seeing the Enterprise get ripped apart is getting very old.

In the plus column, Elba does a fine job as Krall, under makeup that makes the actor unrecognizable. The Yorktown itself is as awesome-looking as Spock flying inside V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Also, Carol Marcus’s vanishing act, while a missed opportunity, did give Reboot Kirk a chance to go through a film without putting on his ladies’ man act. As I once noted, Kirk was much more than that, which is something Kevin Sorbo learned the hard way when he fucked up Andromeda (assuming Sorbo learned that lesson at all).

But again like its two predecessors, Beyond’s focus on being fun is at the expense of being something meaningful. It’s dumb fun, which more or less sums up the Trek reboot series. In fairness, Star Trek as dumb fun truly began with Voyager, specifically after that show decided to toss its premise out the window in order to put the action center stage. This decline continued with Enterprise when that series elected to do the same thing. But this makes the reboot series all the more disheartening, because the reboot was promoted as giving Trek a new lease on life. But apparently this new lease on life meant turning out movies that, stylistically, aren’t much different from all the other mindless action films that get released each summer. The fact that, unlike the original Trek movies, we don’t have to wait two years to see if Kirk comes back to life or if our crew will get a new ship, illustrates that.

While a movie or TV show being dumb fun isn’t a crime in and of itself, it’s somewhat sad that Star Trek began as smart, ahead-of-its-time science fiction and eventually became mindless (albeit enjoyable) fluff like, say, the Friday the 13th series.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Fear City (1984)

"A city full of suspects."
-Al Wheeler.

I have no idea why, but predictability in movies seems to run hot and cold for me. In some cases, I am able to enjoy a film even though I can guess the ending a mile away, while, in others, such predictabiliy makes me stop watching before the movie is half over.
I suppose, as in the case with Blood Work and even some of the Friday the 13th films, this willingness to see the pic through to the end can be narrowed down to the energy that's brought to the proceedings.
This movie is another film that falls into that category. A serial killer is prowling Manhattan and his victims are ladies employed in strip clubs.
As it turns out, one of the killer's potential targets is Loretta (Melanie Griffith) who works at such a club owned by her lover Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger).
Rossi is an former boxer whose career in the ring ended when he ended up killing an opponent during a match. Hence, he's a little unsure about the possibility of taking on someone who's threatening not only his love but his business.
But, at the goading of his partner Nicky Parzeno (Jack Scalia), Rossi reluctanly cooperates with no-nonsense police detective Al Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams, suave as always) to track the killer down.
Not surprisingly, the film ends with Rossi taking out the killer in order to save Loretta's life.
This movie certainly shares the same, nice film noir atmosphere as the same year's Tightrope. But I rate that film a bit higher because what made it unique was that it wasn't just Clint Eastwood playing a police detective who gives out one-liners. Rather Clint was playing a detective who spent a lot of time in his own head as he considered the possibility that he may be the one who has been killing women in his New Orleans haunts.
Fear City offers no such surprises in that sense but it is still very entertaining thanks to its atmosphere and its pleasant cast.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Agony Booth review: The Dirty Harry series

My latest Agony Booth work looks at the Dirty Harry series.

Along with the Man With No Name, “Dirty Harry” Callahan is one of Clint Eastwood’s most famous roles. There have been numerous police inspectors on TV and the big screen both before and since 1971’s Dirty Harry, but what makes this character unique is that he managed to tap into the public’s thoughts when it came to violent crime. The 1970s began with violent crime on the rise, and with the Manson trial in the news, this series became cathartic, if you will, for viewers. As a result, the character generated controversy concerning just how far police could and should go when it came to exacting justice.

Here now is a look at all five movies in this series.

Dirty Harry(1971)
Released the same year as other crime/police classics as Shaft and The French Connection (which won that year’s Best Picture Oscar), Dirty Harry helped usher in the wave of police dramas that the decade would give us, including other gems such as Serpico and Death Wish. A sniper calling himself Scorpio (Andrew Robinson, long before he donned Cardassian makeup) is terrorizing Harry’s San Francisco haunts, which eventually leads the inspector to resort to methods that are unorthodox (to say the least) in order to stop him.

Perhaps no actor has more quotable movie lines to their name than Eastwood, and this series certainly added to that list. The most famous moment of the film is when Harry says, “Do you feel lucky? Well, do you punk?”, first to a bank robber, and then at the film’s climax to Scorpio (who somewhat resembles Manson, but was based on the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized northern California in the late ‘60s and was never caught).

Some critics, notably the late Pauline Kael, referred to the Callahan character as fascist. This is because of the methods he uses to take Scorpio down, including at one point torturing him to get him to reveal where he’s hidden a girl he kidnapped. Not surprisingly, such moments inspired debate about the rights criminals or suspected criminals may have once they’re in police custody.

But this film basically states that said rights can be (and often are) at the expense of the rights of those who have been victimized. This allows viewers such as yours truly to look at Dirty Harry as something of a modern-day Man With No Name.

Although it would be two more decades before Clint would get Oscars to his name, 1971 is probably his best year, because along with this film, he acted in the ahead-of-its-time drama The Beguiled (directed by Dirty Harry director Don Siegel) and made his directorial debut with the ahead-of-its-time thriller Play Misty for Me. Capping the year off with this movie showed that Clint wasn’t just a standard action hero.

Magnum Force(1973)
Like all sequels, Magnum Force got the green light because of the financial success of its predecessor. But this sequel is actually more thoughtful than most, because it addresses what some thought of its predecessor and makes a story out of it.

This movie turns the argument that Harry is fascist on its ear by having Harry face off against patrolmen led by his superior Lt. Briggs (Hal Holbrook). These policemen (played by then-unknowns Robert Urich, Tim Matheson, David Soul, and Kip Niven) prove that they’re fascist by systematically killing off criminals, or anyone they consider to be a threat, without provocation. Harry’s refusal to join them leads to him becoming a target.

Harry’s confrontation with Briggs, in which Harry explains that Briggs’ murdering people makes him just as bad as those he’s murdering, is a perfect reason why we should root for Harry and why any arguments that he’s fascist are just bullshit (Harry gives everyone he’s dispatched a chance to surrender before using his .44 Magnum, anyway).

I also like the Lalo Schifrin score, which is quite moody, even more so than his score for the previous film. Schifrin composed the music for all the Harry films except the third (which was composed by Jerry Fielding), and speaking of which…

The Enforcer(1976)
In this entry, Harry goes up against a group calling themselves the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force, which has kidnapped San Francisco’s mayor. This time, however, Harry is partnered with spunky but inexperienced Kate Moore (Tyne Daly, in her pre-Cagney & Lacey days).

This film is basically nothing new compared to its two predecessors, but it’s still entertaining, with Daly proving a nice match for Eastwood. The scene where the two officially gain respect for each other, after Harry declines to appear at a televised press conference and tells his superior to piss off, stands out and gives this relationship more substance than most films of its kind.

Sudden Impact(1983)
The fourth entry in the series is the only one directed by Eastwood himself, and incidentally, has what is arguably Clint’s most famous line: “Go ahead, make my day,” which he states to a robber at the beginning of the film and, again, to the villains in the climax.

Once again, Harry is investigating deaths of criminals, while becoming involved with artist Jennifer Spencer (Eastwood’s former flame Sandra Locke). The twist this time is that the perpetrator turns out to be Jennifer, whose victims raped both her and her sister years earlier, leaving her sister catatonic.

Every film series has clichés, and this series basically had its clichés set by this point, especially Harry being assigned a partner who gets killed.

Interestingly, while Jennifer is not the first lady Harry has bedded in the series, his love life is somewhat, shall we say, low-key compared to the likes of other action heroes of the time. But the Harry/Jennifer dynamic helps make this one stand out, while the villains (Paul Drake and Audrie J. Neenan) actually give ham acting a good name (I crack up at a lot of their lines). The ending, in which Harry makes his decision regarding Jennifer’s fate, is also memorable.

The Dead Pool(1988)
My dad and I are probably the only ones who think of this movie and not the Marvel comics character when we hear the phrase ‘dead pool’.

Many view this film as the weakest entry in the series, and in some ways, that’s understandable. Supposedly, Clint agreed to play Harry for a fifth time so Warner Brothers would finance his film Bird. There’s also the fact that smaller studios such as Cannon were already inundating audiences with low-budget cop flick schlock throughout the ‘80s (including the Death Wish sequels), which I’m sure didn’t help this movie stand out.

Fans, however, will note one interesting difference this film has from its predecessors. In the previous entries, Harry has been taken to task in one way or another after taking out bad guys in his unique way. Indeed, Dirty Harry itself ends with a disgusted Harry tossing away his police badge (I guess he went to the trouble of fishing it out of the bay for the sequels). In this film, however, Harry has actually become famous, which fits into this movie’s theme of the dangers of being a celebrity.

This movie also had three actors who would go on to greater fame: Jim Carrey, Liam Neeson, and Patricia Clarkson.

Harry is investigating the death of a rock star (Carrey) who was working on a music video. The victim appears to have OD’ed, but Harry’s suspicions are aroused when he learns that the video’s egotistical director (Neeson) keeps a list he calls the Dead Pool, which lists celebrities he expects to die within a year because of their professions, or in the case of the rock star, their drug use. Harry soon realizes that his own name is on that list, and with his partner, martial artist Al Quan (Evan Kim), soon finds other listed celebrities getting killed. Interestingly, one of these celebrities is a film critic played by an actress who somewhat resembles Kael.

Harry’s love/hate relationship with reporter Samantha Walker (Clarkson), who wants to do a story on Harry’s career and (of course) gets her name on the Dead Pool list, is ho-hum and the scene where he and Al have to outrace a toy car is nothing short of silly. Still, as with the four previous entries, it’s an entertaining way to pass the time. Although not exactly a rousing finish, The Dead Pool was an adequate way to end the series before it got really stale (à la the zombie pics of George Romero after Day of the Dead). Leonard Maltin said it best in his review when he wrote, “Eastwood’s charisma makes all the difference.”

Since The Dead Pool, Eastwood has kept going strong, including winning Oscars for directing the western Unforgiven (which was dedicated to both Siegel and Man with No Name director Sergio Leone) and the drama Million Dollar Baby. Dirty Harry itself would be later included in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2012 for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”

One could certainly argue that the dynamics of this series are the reasons we now have other film series such as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, both of which have protagonists always getting in hot water with their bosses for not doing their jobs by destroying public property. The unorthodox methods the series’ title character utilizes, which were so controversial initially, have now become pretty much mandatory for all movie police detectives. Perhaps this lack of controversy explains why so many of those Harry imitators haven’t made the same impression.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Agony Booth review: Summer blockbusters

My latest Agony Booth work looks at the summer blockbuster phenomenon.
Another summer is here, and in the movie world, that means summer blockbusters: the escapist, big-budget films that over the decades have become regarded as mostly fluff. One of the first books I ever read that talked about the summer blockbuster phenomenon was Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which primarily looked at the rise of numerous American filmmakers during the 1970s, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese.

While the book is certainly informative, it makes a rather simplistic argument that I’ve heard repeated all too often in the ensuing years. Biskind states that the viability of such movies as The Godfather slowly gave way to what he called lesser films such as Star Wars by the decade’s end. The author specifically notes Jaws as the turning point for this. (Though, it’s interesting to note the production of that film was over-budget and over schedule, so there was a good chance that it might have flopped. If so, Duel, Spielberg’s first film, would be seen today as a glimpse of what might have been, rather than the start of a great career.)

As it turns out, Jaws, released on June 20, 1975, was the opposite of a flop. It became the highest-grossing movie of all time, made Spielberg an A-list director, and deservedly won Oscars for sound, editing, and John Williams’ classic score. It also officially kicked off the era of big-budget escapism that Hollywood unleashes on us each summer.

Putting aside the fact that there were blockbusters before Jaws (such as the James Bond films), Biskind’s book states that this shift led to other directors somehow losing their importance, as they were unable or unwilling to make films that would earn as much money as Jaws.

In addition, in this pre-Internet, pre-home-video era, Jaws actually generated positive word of mouth before its June 20 opening thanks to preview screenings in several cities, which led to its record-breaking grosses once it hit theaters nationally. These grosses became the primary focus for Hollywood when it came to summer blockbusters. It didn’t matter if the movie itself was good or not; as long as it made a crapload of money out of the gate, it was considered successful.

Star Wars was released two years after Jaws, and the even greater success of that film cemented Hollywood’s blockbuster obsession. Star Wars not only won seven Oscars (including one for its John Williams score), but as of this writing, has spawned six sequels (compared to just three for Jaws).

George Lucas’s film also brought something else to the table: merchandising. It wasn’t the first movie or TV show to have tie-in merchandise, but Star Wars brought it to another level, to the extent that the Star Wars action figures ended up making more money than the movies themselves. Plus the fact that, due to the initial indifference of everyone Lucas pitched Star Wars to before filming began, he was able to keep all the merchandising rights for himself. None of the countless Star Wars imitators that have come along in the years since have had that same impact (as those toy stores that were inundated with worthless Battlefield Earth action figures can tell you).

But I find Biskind’s argument that Jaws, and later Star Wars, ruined movies to be silly at the very least. Another argument I found on this blog referred to an article once written in GQ that stated Hollywood’s blockbuster fixation can actually be credited to Top Gun.

As anyone who’s seen that film knows, while it’s not science fiction, it certainly isn’t realistic either. While Top Gun supposedly led many guys to enlist in the Navy, the movie itself has scenes that look like they were meant to be put in a video game (so it’s no surprise that there would Top Gun games in arcades later on).

In addition, the music videos for the film’s songs “Take My Breath Away” (which won the Best Original Song Oscar that year) and “Danger Zone” also simply showed extended segments from the film itself, which made one wonder if they were just watching the film again rather than just clips of it. Hence, rather than the action figures that Star Wars gave us, Top Gun gave us moments that were specifically designed to be played on MTV.

Top Gun was certainly not the first dumb summer blockbuster. For instance, the original Friday the 13th came out six years earlier and was the second biggest moneymaker of summer 1980 (beaten only by The Empire Strikes Back). But unlike Friday the 13th, Top Gun had a big star in Tom Cruise, in the midst of his ‘80s heyday. As a result, many blockbusters in ensuing summers have had A-list stars such as (to name a now-infamous example) Nicolas Cage, who scored with The Rock, Face/Off, National Treasure, and Con Air before becoming desperate enough to take any role that came his way (thanks to his enormous spending, which reportedly included purchasing an island). So while Jaws is credited with ushering in the summer blockbuster, Top Gun ushered in the dumb summer blockbuster.

This is not to say all blockbusters since then have been dumb. Indeed, Top Gun came out in 1986, at the same time as classics such as Aliens and The Fly. But that previously linked article also points to two films that came out a decade after Top Gun: Twister and Independence Day. Both those films, like Top Gun, featured popular stars and plenty of moments that made you go "WTF?"

The success of both those films showed that summer blockbusters were perfect for stars who were either on the A-list or being groomed for it. For instance, Twister star Helen Hunt already had the TV success of Mad About You to her name and would win an Oscar a short time later for As Good As It Gets. A later, similarly dumb summer film, The Mummy, had then-up and coming Brendan Fraser and future Oscar winner Rachel Weisz in its cast.

Ironically, both Spielberg and Lucas recently expressed concern with how the film industry is on the cusp of imploding because of this ongoing focus on bigger and bigger event films. I find this concern somewhat ironic, considering how the Star Wars prequels turned out.

This brings me to last summer’s biggest hit, Jurassic World. This was arguably worse than the previous two sequels to Jurassic Park. Chris Pratt taming velociraptors was certainly bullshit (yes, friends, you too can make velociraptors your bitches!), but even more so was Bryce Dallas Howard outrunning a T-Rex in high heels, not to mention the movie’s suggestion that all that’s needed to stop a couple from heading to divorce court is for their kids to come within inches of becoming dino chow. Interestingly, Twister also kept its two leads from getting divorced, in this case by having them drive right into tornadoes.

But like The Force Awakens, Jurassic World’s biggest sin is that it’s essentially a retelling of the first movie, even though it acknowledges the events of that previous film. So the great success of both of these movies makes me wonder if a new kind of blockbuster is coming: one that acknowledges its legendary predecessor, and pisses all over it anyway.

Granted, these two films weren’t the first sequels to do that (Alien 3, anyone?), but they seem to have become the most successful, which means such sequels could become the norm rather than the exception. Still, both movies were entertaining, which is more than can be said for other would-be blockbusters that have flopped, such as Speed 2: Cruise Control or The Lone Ranger. This highlights what is probably a key reason why summer blockbusters continue to thrive: Plot and even coherency can be rendered secondary if the film itself has enough kinetic energy to keep the audience awake for a couple of hours.

But to read Biskind’s book, it sounds like he’s blaming Star Wars for the fact that Coppola has been reduced to directing has-beens like Val Kilmer in films that only play in a fraction of the theaters The Godfather did. In Coppola’s case, his declining clout should really be attributed to filing for bankruptcy in the ‘80s due to all the money he spent making Apocalypse Now (which Lucas originally had a hand in), and his film One from the Heart flopping at the box office.

Just because movies without special effects and action don’t get top priority with some studio executives doesn’t mean that these sorts of films have no chance of becoming appreciated, let alone being made. In other words, while we may question why some films enjoy financial success, there’s always been room for all kinds of films. Those who insist otherwise are basically wasting their breath, as there have been signs of this trend letting up.

But, honestly, there have always been escapist films that have set the bar in terms of financial success. If Jaws did anything different in that regard, it made summer the fashionable time for such movies to be released. Likewise, Star Wars simply brought toys into the equation as no movie did before or since. These two films are still examples of how summer blockbusters can be every bit as smart as straight dramatic, non-blockbuster movies. Hollywood, as is often the case, simply focuses on the rewards those two movies brought rather than the ingredients that led to those lucrative results.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Agony Booth review: Star Trek: The Next Generation's third season

My newest Agony Booth article looks at Star Trek: The Next Generation's third season, which set the course (if you'll pardon the pun) for not only that series, but the subsequent three Trek shows as well.
As this is Star Trek’s golden anniversary year, and with the pending release of Star Trek: Beyond, I’ve decided to look at the effect of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s third season, which many feel had an impact not only on TNG but the subsequent Star Trek shows as well.

TNG’s first season is often regarded as the series’ worst, and indeed, a number of those early episodes don’t do anything the original Star Trek didn’t do better. But even then, elements of the greatness to come were present. If I had to pick my favorite episode from TNG’s first year, it would be a tie between “Heart of Glory” and “Conspiracy”.

The former was not only the first of what became a very long line of Worf/Klingon episodes for both TNG and Deep Space Nine, but it also allowed us a wonderful first glimpse into Worf’s character. “Conspiracy” was, intentionally or not, a nice (and even gory) homage to the 1956 classic film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Ironically, we never saw a sequel to this story, even though the ending clearly left the door open for one.

TNG’s second season, likewise, gave us gems such as “The Measure of a Man”, “Contagion”, and of course, introduced us to the Borg with “Q Who”. It’s almost a miracle that the series was able to put out any good stuff during these two years when you consider the behind the scenes turmoil that was going on. This turmoil entailed not only the departures of Denise Crosby (Tasha Yar) and Gates McFadden (Beverly Crusher), but also a writing staff that was basically a revolving door.

The third year of the series, however, provided a welcome respite from the disappointment of that summer’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and also saw the start of a stable crew being put in place on both sides of the camera. The man who got the most credit for giving TNG this second wind is the late, great Michael Piller. He began his career as a journalist before selling scripts to series such as Cagney & Lacey and Simon & Simon. Piller became a producer on the latter show, before being offered a chance to work on TNG. Piller wasn’t familiar with Star Trek, so he basically looked at what worked in TNG’s earlier seasons (such as Q and the Borg) and kept those elements in place, while also making TNG more of an ensemble series. This included McFadden returning as Crusher.

One of his masterstrokes during this season was the great way in which he brought back Tasha Yar. Crosby was dissatisfied with how her character was being utilized and asked to be released from the show before the end of TNG’s first season. But Piller basically took the lemon of the episode in which Yar was killed off, “Skin of Evil”, and turned it into the lemonade that was “Yesterday’s Enterprise”.

One of the best parts of that episode was that, even though much of the action takes place in an alternate reality, the aftereffects of the story would come back to haunt Picard and his crew in the show’s later seasons. This episode would also be tied in with the show’s ongoing Worf/Klingon storyline, giving us more insight into that culture than Trek had previously shown.

Hence, the third season finale “The Best of Both Worlds” was not only a culmination of TNG’s third year; it was the culmination of what TNG had achieved by this point. One of my colleagues wrote an interesting two part article, “Should Picard have died in ‘Best of Both Worlds’?”, which asked how not only TNG but Star Trek altogether would have fared if Picard had died in that story. This also reinforced the fact that “The Best of Both Worlds” generated the biggest drama series buzz since “Who shot J.R.?” on Dallas. I’ll never forget the sight of my cousin Matt pounding the floor in frustration when Picard appeared as Locutus, and then the screen went black and the words “To Be Continued...” appeared at the end of this seminal episode.

All three of the subsequent Star Trek shows have attempted to duplicate the tension that “The Best of Both Worlds” created at least once. Indeed, in the beginning, fans of Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise were often found saying to wait until the third season of each of those shows, because that’s when they would get good just like TNG did at that point. Alas, none of those three series managed to give us the same impact in their respective third seasons.

DS9’s second season ended promisingly with “The Jem’Hadar”, which introduced the Dominion (hinted at in previous episodes of the season). Naturally, this development was picked up in the show’s third season premiere “The Search”. Let’s just say that if “The Best of Both Worlds” was science fiction’s answer to “Who shot J.R.?”, then “The Search” was definitely the genre’s answer to “Bobby Ewing in the shower”. This is because Sisko and his crew attempt to have talks with the Dominion’s leaders, only to be ambushed and later informed that Starfleet is basically kissing the Dominion’s ass from now on. This prompts Sisko and company to collapse the wormhole in order to keep the Dominion from obtaining any more troops and supplies. Alas, the ending of the story reveals all of this as an illusion placed in the minds of the crew as part of the Dominion’s plan to see how they would react to such a scenario.

But like Dallas, DS9 managed to go on after this fiasco, which included a retooling in the fourth season, the same season in which Worf became a regular. Viewers did eventually get that Federation/Dominion conflict, but while it gave us gems such as “In the Pale Moonlight”, I’ve sometimes wondered if the series may have fared better if that war came sooner rather than later. I must also note that Piller, whose success with TNG had led to him being given the chance to develop DS9, left the show in the middle of the third season in order to focus more on the next Trek series Voyager.

I once noted that Voyager basically gave up on its premise in its second season and decided to just become a logic-free action show. Indeed, that show’s second season finale, “Basics”, finds the entire crew stranded on a barren, hostile planet by Klingon knockoffs the Kazon. Another of my colleagues cited the Voyager episode “Alliances” as the moment where both Voyager and the Star Trek franchise died. “Basics” essentially reinforced that notion by not having one single crew member confront Janeway during the entire episode, even though she lost crew members in prior dealings with the Kazon, and her unwillingness to do anything with them led to their exile.

Not surprisingly, the crew gets their ship back (with Janeway doing absolutely nothing to make that happen) and merrily resume their seven-year mission. The good news was that we were never bothered with the Kazon again after this. The bad news is that Voyager never took its premise of a ship stuck on the other side of the galaxy with limited manpower and resources seriously again. Nope, we just had to accept that the ship was always pristine and working perfectly with crewmembers that could be pulled out of the production team’s asses on a moment’s notice, despite the fact that there were no starbases around to supply the ship with this stuff.

The only time Voyager generated any positive buzz again was with the addition of Jeri Ryan’s Seven of Nine in its fourth season. That character, a Borg drone forced to rediscover her humanity after Janeway cuts her off from the collective, generated a lot of press. Sadly, this required the producers to drop the character of Kes (Jennifer Lien, who in recent years has had to contend with issues more serious than getting laid off, because of her numerous arrests). Garrett Wang’s Harry Kim was originally chosen to get the axe, but People magazine changed the producers’ minds when Wang made that magazine’s list of “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” for that year. I also suppose the producers didn’t want to get rid of Ethan Phillips’s Neelix, because they were in denial that Neelix was as hated as Jar Jar Binks (you have to love how both those characters were groomed to be as embraced as much as Spock and E.T., but in both cases, the opposite occurred).

Ironically, Piller left Voyager at the start of its third season because, among other things, he actually wanted to develop the Kazon storyline more (why, I’m not sure, given how lame they were). Sadly, his final contribution to the Star Trek franchise was the screenplay for Star Trek: Insurrection.

I must confess, I’ve only seen a handful of episodes of Enterprise. But the fact that Rick Berman and Brannon Braga gave this show the same mentality as Voyager didn’t surprise me. The episodes of the show I did see reinforced that notion.

I suppose it would be too simplistic to state that Piller not being involved at all with Enterprise meant it had no chance of being good. But the fact that Voyager, somehow, got the same number of seasons as TNG and DS9 probably made the producers think that Enterprise also going the same purely action series, premise-be-damned route Voyager did would’ve assured paychecks for another seven years. Alas, Enterprise got the axe after just four seasons.

Maybe there is no single answer for why TNG’s third season became the magical, pivotal season of television that it did. But the creative ambition that came together in that year made it clear that Star Trek without Kirk and Spock was not the inconceivable thought it had been just a few years prior.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Blood Work (2002)

"I'm in this thing for the full ride!"
-Terry McCaleb.

For some reason, I predictability in movies for me can vary how I enjoy it. For instance, I pretty much knew how Scream 4 was going to turn out and didn't even both watching it until I wrote my recent article on that series.
This movie, though, I have been able to enjoy even though I figured out the mystery of the story at least half an hour before the protagonists did.
As an actor, nobody can do the 'loner who has been through a lot' persona the way Clint can, which is why he's as fun to watch as ever here. He plays FBI man Terry McCaleb, who is tracking down a serial killer when, following a foot chase through an alley, he suffers a heart attack before managing to shoot the killer (whose face is hidden at this point) in the back.

A while later, McCaleb, who lives on his boat, is undergoing routine heart surgery, as his attack required a heart transplant. He is soon contacted by Graciella Rivers (Wanda De Jesus). She asks him to find the person who killed her sister and McCaleb agrees after Graciella informs him that the heart he now has belonged to her sister.

With the help of his colleague/former flame Jaye Winston (Tina Lifford) and the reluctant assistnace of detectives Ronaldo Arrango (Paul Rodriguez) and John Waller (Dylan Walsh), McCaleb views footage of where the killer struck previously and interviews relatives of the previous victims.

Not surprisingly, this begins to tax his heart condition further, to the chagrin of his stern by well-meaning doctor Bonnie Fox (Anjelica Huston). However, even she agrees to assist McCaleb by helping him discover that the past victims were organ/blood donors and that the killer specifically targeted them because they had the same blood type as McCaleb, who was in need of a new heart that Graciella's sister ended up supplying him with.

Even when possible suspect Mikhail Bolotov (Igor Jijikine) is found dead with possessions of the victims on him, McCaleb isn't convinced.

Eventually, he realizes that his all-too-helpful neighbor Buddy Noone (Jeff Daniels) is the killer. I pretty much guessed that halfway through because Buddy seems all-to-eager to please once McCaleb asks him for transportation to various locations. Of course, at the same time, this revelation is reached, Buddy has kidnapped Graciella and her nephew. But, McCaleb forces him to take him to them even as Buddy taunts him about how McCaleb should be grateful that he basically saved his life, by killing other people.

The climatic confrontation can pretty much be guessed about by anyone who has seen past Eastwood thrillers. Fortunately, the cast makes up for the story's predictability by being fun to watch. Even the romance which develops between McCaleb and Graciella is fine because it is not set up the way movie romances are in so many other films.

No, Blood Work is not as sharp as, say, Play Misty for Me (1971), Dirty Harry (1971), Tightrope (1984) and In the Line of Fire (1993). But, I'm inclined to say it's as enjoyable to watch as those gems.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Agony Booth review: the Scream movies

My latest Agony Booth work looks at the Scream franchise, on the 20th anniversary of the first film.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the horror movie Scream. The movie’s success led to three sequels, and all four entries were directed by the late, great Wes Craven.

Ironically, there wasn’t much fanfare surrounding the first Scream upon its original release. This could be attributed to two factors: The slasher genre had all but died out by the end of the ‘80s, and Craven’s previous film Vampire in Brooklyn was understandably a box office bomb.

However, screenwriter Kevin Williamson had come up with a script, originally titled Scary Movie, which looked at slasher films through a lens of pop culture irreverence. He asked Craven to direct it, but the director refused until Drew Barrymore expressed interest in playing the lead role of Sidney Prescott.

As production began, Barrymore made a bold suggestion to Craven. She asked to play Casey Becker, the first victim who dies within the first ten minutes of the film. Barrymore’s argument was that if she died so soon after the movie began, audiences would be on edge for the rest of the picture, and Craven happily agreed.

Scream’s opening scene was key to the word-of-mouth that the picture would generate in the fall of 1996. Barrymore had already appeared both in beloved films like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and garbage like Poison Ivy. She had also endeared herself to the public with the way she conquered her childhood drug use. The opening scene where she’s taunted and murdered by an assailant donning a ghost face mask has deservedly become a classic.

Happily, the rest of the film is also exciting, thanks mainly to Neve Campbell, who ended up with the role of Sidney. While Barrymore’s opening scene got all the attention, Campbell ends up carrying the movie on her shoulders by playing an instantly likeable high schooler who has to contend with a serial killer on the anniversary of her mother’s death.

Her friends are Tatum (Rose McGowan), Tatum’s policeman brother Dewey (David Arquette), and film geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy). Unwanted help comes in the form of reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox).

As it turns out, the killer turns out to be not one, but two people: Sidney’s boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich, who previously worked with Campbell in The Craft), and his sidekick Stu (Matthew Lillard, who later became known for playing Shaggy). These two differentiate themselves from their cinematic brethren by making intentional references to past horror movies. I must also point out that they actually take more punches from their victims and potential victims than past cinematic killers.

There are some scenes in this movie I disliked. Perhaps the biggest one for me is the climax, where there’s a big party at Stu’s house and everyone but the main characters clears out. Why? Because these people get word that their principal (Henry Winkler) has become one of the victims, and they cheerfully rush off to see the body. This has to be the most clichéd “nobody around to help the select few against the killer” setup in any movie. I realize that it’s not unusual for high school students to dislike their principal, but this was the Fonz, dammit!

Still, the movie itself became a deserved success, and by law, that means sequels.

Alas, the Scream sequels proved to be nothing to write home about. I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect any horror series to give us as great a sequel as The Bride of Frankenstein or Aliens. However, Scream was referred to in some circles as the film that saved the horror genre. A bit of overpraise, perhaps, but this meant that there would be an audience for follow-ups.

However, like the Jurassic Park series, the Scream series basically became a descent in quality from one entry to the next.

Not surprisingly, Scream 2, which was released the very next year, has an emphasis on sequels. It’s also more tongue-in-cheek, in that the events of the first film have now been made into a movie called Stab. Probably the worst thing about Scream 2, other than the fact that the script was written and re-written throughout production, is that the main characters who survived the first film are actually dumber in the sequel. For example, at one point, Sidney and a friend of hers find themselves trapped in a police car being driven at breakneck speed by the killer. After the car crashes and knocks out the killer, the two girls manage to get out of the car and begin to dart off before Sidney stops and decides to go back and unmask the killer. Of course, when Sidney goes back, the killer is gone and then leaps out of nowhere to kill Sidney’s friend.

Also, Gale and Sidney were at odds in the first film because of a book the former wrote regarding the death of Sidney’s mom. One would think that surviving a killing spree together would make the two appreciate each other more. Scream 2, though, brings them back to square one in their relationship.

Craven and Williamson attempt to shake things up by killing off Randy this time around, but apparently they forgot that Scream wasn’t the first series to kill off a survivor in the sequel. Still, Scream 2 made money, although we wouldn’t see Scream 3 until 2000. There were a number of factors for this gap between entries, one of them being the tragic shooting at Columbine in 1999, which, not surprisingly, made studios think twice before giving horror films the greenlight. Another factor was Williamson had gone on to other projects, and Ehren Kruger was brought in as screenwriter.

Alas, Scream 3 proved an even bigger disappointment than its immediate predecessor, because it just puts out the same, lame narrative. The surviving cast (including Jamie Kennedy, whose Randy is tossed in via a videotaped message for no reason) goes through the motions, this time with (you guessed it) trilogies being constantly referenced.

As it turns out, the killer this time turns out to be Sidney’s long lost brother (played by former Mr. Jennifer Garner, Scott Foley), who’s a down-on-his-luck film director. Poor girl; if it’s not her boyfriend trying to kill her, it’s the brother the screenwriters pulled out of their asses. This film, however, does attempt to suggest that Sidney herself is the guilty party this time around. Indeed, many critics thought such a move would make things a bit more interesting. However, to quote Sidney at this film’s climax: “Christ, I’ve heard all this shit before!”

Scream 3 was the least successful entry in the series up to that point, which is why we didn’t see the next entry until 11 years later. During that time, studios were giving more and more remakes/reboots the go-ahead. This wasn’t just confined to classic scare-fests such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, but to non-horror franchises such as Batman, James Bond, and Star Trek.

So it’s not surprising that when Scream 4 eventually cursed cinemas with its presence, the story’s emphasis was on remakes and reboots. We see new characters in the same high school as Sidney and her ill-fated friends talking about how they grew up with the horror they had to live through, while the killer here asks them about originals versus remakes.

This time, Sidney returns to Haddonfield, er, Woodsboro to promote her new self-help book, which focuses on how she was able to get her life back together after the three killing sprees she went through. Oh, and her return coincides with the town’s anniversary of the killing spree (complete with Ghostface masks adorning the lampposts). At least when Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm went back into the dinos’ den in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, it was for the noble purpose of rescuing Julianne Moore. Here, however, Sidney is returning to her hometown in hopes of profiting from her past nightmarish experiences, experiences which claimed the lives of her mother, friends, and the brother she knew for all of five minutes.

Not that Woodsboro itself has had it any better. For instance, Dewey is now the sheriff (at least both Han Solo and Lando Calrissian proved they had the chops to lead troops into battle when they became generals). Gale is now his wife, and she’s pissed because her journalism career (if you want to call it that) is all but dead, and Dewey’s deputy Judy (Agony Booth repeat offender Marley Shelton) has eyes for him.

Like Scream 3, there’s a bit of effort to suggest that Sidney is the killer, but once again, that suggestion doesn’t go very far in favor of the same old shtick (complete with pointless cameos from Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell).

I would go into how this entry ends, but frankly, it’s every bit as dumb, if not more so, as the previous two films, and its low box office take reflected that sentiment. In fact, the only reason I bothered to sit through Scream 4 at all was to write this article.

Scream itself was definitely entertaining, despite the moments I mentioned earlier. Alas, all three of its sequels basically took said moments and amplified them. Hence, by Scream 3, all the characters were hard to root for because, due to the self-referential nature of this series, they only talked via sarcastic remarks and pop culture references, just like the characters in Friends.

Whether Cox’s presence was a coincidence or not, the Scream series became less of a scare-fest as it went on, and more like Friends with murders sprinkled in. But even that may not have necessarily been a bad thing, had Ross and Chandler been among the victims.